The dominant Rice Street institution for the past 120 years has been St. Bernard’s Church and School. Like St. Mary’s several blocks to the south, St. Bernard’s has its roots in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many of the original parishioners (the parish was organized in the spring of 1890) came from five villages in what was called the Deutsch Ungarn, a German ethnic region of what is now western Hungary. The parish began very near its current location, in a rented house on Jessamine Street.
This was mostly unbuilt territory at the time (most of the housing was still south of Front Avenue), but not for long. As an early parish historian observed, “From the time the church was built in 1890, that part of the City grew rapidly. Business on Rice Street sprung up like mushrooms over night, residences were built on all side streets up until 1893 and after the hard times in 1896….St. Bernard’s grew bigger and bigger, not only from year to year, but almost daily. New immigrants came from across the big pond and even if they did not have much money, they generally had lots of children. And how they grew up!”
And how St. Bernard’s grew! A new church and school building opened in 1891, a convent in 1893, a parish hall in 1895, a rectory in 1900, a new church (the current one) in 1906, a new convent in 1911, a new school in 1922, and a new rectory in 1939. St. Bernard’s School, the only Catholic school in the area, was an instant hit. By the early 1900s the students were “packed like sardines in a tin can, in fourteen rooms, some of which were as small as 12 feet by 18 feet.”
According to a diocesan history, enrollment reached 1,280 in 1934, making it “the largest grade school west of Chicago.” It certainly dwarfed all the public grade schools on the North End. Time, however, often works in cruel ways and the grade school was not able to withstand the test of time. Like many urban Catholic schools, St. Bernard’s lost enrollment steadily in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The grade school closed in 2009 and the high school one year later.
St. Bernard’s Church is a thing of unique beauty. It has no basement and no steeple—twin spires instead. The sanctuary floor slopes gently from the back to the communion “so that people in the rear rows can see the Communicant as well as those in the front rows.” Architectural historian Larry Millet calls the style Art Nouveau-Prairie. The architect was Vienna-trained Slovenian immigrant John Jager.